You will soon be able to ride home from your local car dealership in a car that finds its way there unassisted while you nap or read. That reality came a whole lot closer this week, with bipartisan agreement in the Senate on legislation allowing self-driving cars to take the the roads. The law is expected to come up for vote in the near future, and pass.
The House passed similar legislation, also with bipartisan support, several weeks ago. That legislation allows car manufacturers to sell up to 25,000 autonomous vehicles the first year they offer them. That will go up to 100,000 cars a year if the self-driving cars prove as safe as human-driven ones. And that’s not all. The Trump administration also helped out recently by issuing voluntary safety guidelines for autonomous cars and at the same time requesting that states avoid writing laws or regulations governing self-driving cars and possibly hampering their introduction.
The senators who arrived at the self-driving deal note that autonomous cars appear to be safer than human-driven ones. “Ultimately, we expect adoption of self-driving vehicle technologies will save lives, improve mobility for people with disabilities, and create new jobs,” said Senators John Thune (R-S.D.) and Gary Peters (D-Mich.) in a joint statement. They may be right: When a Tesla owner died while his car was in Autopilot mode last summer, company founder Elon Musk pointed out that it was the first known Autopilot fatality in 130 million miles of driving, whereas there’s a human fatality for every 89 million miles of traditional driving.
But if cars with no one at the wheel will soon become a common sight, the same won’t be true of semi trucks. The Teamsters successfully lobbied for the House version of the bill to limit self-driving vehicles to 10,000 pounds or less. That could be a problem for the U.S. trucking industry, which was short an estimated 48,000 drivers at the end of 2015, a shortage that’s expected to grow to 175,000 over the next seven years. That will create enormous pressure to replace hard-to-find long-haul truck drivers with no-muss, no-fuss AI.